All Posts in “Writing & Publishing”

Birthed From Struggle

5.2 CNF author Heather M. Surls describes how her essay “The Door of Hope” responds to the suffering of real people.

After a day of volunteering at The Door of Hope, a shelter for prostitutes in Tel Aviv, I would crowd onto a bus with dozens of Israelis and ride to our apartment near Jerusalem. Sometimes I’d read on the way; sometimes I’d watch the orange trees, wheat fields and melon fields of the coast rise into the pines, scrub oaks and rocks of the hill country. Once home, I’d shower to scrub away the smells of bleach and sweat and dying. Then my husband and I would sit at the table and I’d begin to talk. Deflated, spent from fighting on the front lines, I’d sketch with words the women I’d met, my tasks and conversations, my small victories in speaking Hebrew.

Then I’d write. I used my ugly journal at that time, the plain spiral notebook with the cover that had soaked up something greasy on the bus. I wrote about my experiences to let go of them—catch in words, commit to the page, and release. After several months of this—visiting The Door of Hope on weekends and writing when I came home—I began my essay. I collected the scattered scraps of senseless days and senseless pain and tried to craft something beautiful. The result, after months of experiencing, writing, compiling, and editing, was “The Door of Hope,” a patchwork of stories, faces, and meditations.

The shelter, a concrete basement in the slums of south Tel Aviv, was full of art and artists. Although the walls were moldy, although rats sometimes scampered from one hole to another in full view, although sometimes a prostitute woke screaming from a nightmare, The Door of Hope made people make art. Photographers, especially, came and captured scabbed faces, desperate eyes, grocery bags stuffed with clothes, occasional hugs and smiles. The walls held some of their art: a portrait of a wide-eyed, unsmiling woman in front of a red cloth. She died. One of a skeletal woman with blonde waves of hair, wearing a piece of white silk and lace, leaning against a building. She was beaten to death with a pipe.

Art was a response to pain—that became clear as I worked and wrote. The photographers tried to find beauty in ashes. I tried to reconstruct my experiences so I could cope, so I could handle the hell I saw in back streets and broken bodies. But, perhaps deeper than that, I wrote because I wanted to redeem the pain. I wanted to make something beautiful from withdrawal-complaints and shouts in the alleyway, something poetic yet fragmented to show my lack of understanding—girl after girl, day after day, what can this mean? I wanted to make all this suffering good for something. If these prostitutes had to suffer, I wanted to expose their misery so others would see their need and feel compassion.

Does all art come from pain? I don’t think so, but I do believe that some of the best and most enduring art is birthed from struggle. I think of David and his many poems, which I’ve read for years during dark nights of soul. How wonderful that God took David’s anguish, allowed him to express it, and preserved it for thousands of years to encourage me, riding on the bus to Tel Aviv, bracing myself for the onslaught of evil and fallenness, clinging to bits of truth.

The seas have lifted up, O LORD,
the seas have lifted up their voice;
the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
Mightier than the thunder of the great waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea—
the LORD on high is mighty

(Psalm 93:3-4).

Heather M. Surls is the author of “The Door of Hope,” featured in issue 5.2 of Relief.

Paul’s Advice for Writers

Brad Fruhauff

Editor-in-Chief Brad Fruhauff was surprised to find advice on writing in the Epistle to the Romans.

As Relief starts considering an expansion to graphic narrative, I’ve been trolling the web to see what Christians are up to out there in the world of comics. Let’s just say that it’s not pretty.

Not unlike a lot of the standard fare in Christian fiction, graphic narrative under the banner of God Incarnate tends toward the didactic, polemic, reductive, simplistic, sappy, disingenuous, and even outright violent. My guess is there are Christian comic artists out there in desperate need of a journal like Relief. We just need to find one another.

What’s distressing is that there’s a lot of talent out there – people who can draw really well. The stories, however, are predictable, inane, or repugnantly self-righteous. An example comes to mind of a strip, admirably drawn in the super-hero style of DC Comics or Marvel, in which a hip-looking fellow in the company of an angel tries to convert a man in a suit he meets on the street. The suit, perhaps not surprisingly for someone approached in this guerrilla manner, rejects the curbside altar call and is spectacularly dragged to hell. One is reminded of William Blake’s claim that Milton was on the side of the devils, since it’s clear this comic is enamored with the representation of the demons and the man’s terror.

The audience for this kind of narrative is not Christ’s lost sheep but the elder sons who pass by the prodigals while they’re still working in the pig sties. It is the smug and self-satisfied Christian who will be offended with God when they learn the deathbed conversions will receive the same reward as they who stayed within the fold from early in the day. (Yes I will mix my metaphors and parables.)

This seems to be the kind of thinking Paul is trying to correct in Romans. In the first three chapters he gets quite exercised about the fact that God’s judgment covers all. This is where he says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Thus none should become too proud nor too quick to judge others:

You are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?

The last bit there should give us all pause. To judge another who is under the same curse of sin as us  is to despise the riches of God, to forget that it was His goodness, not our own wisdom, that led us to Him.

Christian writers might keep this in mind when dealing with both believing and non-believing characters or when treating the things of this world. When Jesus said he brought a sword, he described the effect his salvific work would have on an egotistic human nature. He wasn’t giving us swords – in fact, he told Peter to put his sword down.

Paul reminds us that the consciousness of sin begins with oneself. In Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima identifies this sense of personal guilt as the beginning of universal love. How foreign such an idea seems to American Christianity! May we pray that we are not found inexcusable. May we rather love what Christ loves – the Creation, human beings – and do our part in remaking and re-presenting the world to ourselves to closer approximate that love.

Gathering the Kindling

David Holper

Guest Poetry Editor David Holper shares his experience reading and writing poetry and offers some insight into what he wants for our Fall 2011 issue.

As the guest poetry editor for the upcoming issue of Relief, I want to introduce writers and readers to my tastes and influences as a poet and as a reader of poetry.  Let me start where I typically start with people who ask me who my favorite poet is.  When W.H. Auden was asked this same question in an interview in 1971, he wisely responded, “it suggest[s] that poetry were a horse race where you could put people 1, 2, 3, 4. You can’t. If anyone is any good, he is unique and not replaceable by anybody else.”  That’s a good starting place because in reading a lot (and writing a lot), you move beyond gimmicks and you learn to write yourself out of the ruts that often occur in creative work.

As for me, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area (in a family of devout atheists, a dis-ease from which I eventually recovered as an adult) and was heavily influenced by the Beats (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginzberg, Gary Snyder), but I was lucky enough to have good writing teachers in high school, college, and graduate school, so all along I was exposed early on to an eclectic variety of styles, voices, and forms.

I began to write my own poetry in high school, but I would say that as important as practicing writing, I regularly attended open mics and poetry readings, put together my own poetry shows (with my other weird poet friends), and often read my work aloud.  That sense of the sound of a poem has been critical to my understanding and writing of poetry.  In college, I also wound up editing the campus literary magazine Toyon, which helped me recognize that quality poetry doesn’t come in just one form, particularly the one with my name on it.  Those habits of reading widely and reading aloud have definitely influenced my craft and my appreciation of other poets.

As an editor, I want a poem to offer me something that I wouldn’t otherwise notice.  I recall hearing a wonderful poem on the radio one day (a poem I’ve never been able to locate afterwards) in which a man describes flying on a plane with his wife who falls asleep next to him.  In staring at her, as well as the sunny space between them, he realizes that in the many years that they have been married, it’s as if a third presence has formed that binds them.  It’s altogether a lovely poem, but lovelier still because it reveals to us something we may have all intuited about couples who have been together for a lifetime and still find themselves in love—that together they seem to form something greater than themselves, and anyone who has basked in such a presence surely feels its blessing.

Then, too, a good poem often has a core: sometimes that core comes in the form of an idea.  Think of so many Wallace Stevens poems or William Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow.  Yes, it’s a vivid image that he offers us, but it’s the line that “so much relies upon” that wheelbarrow that tells us what he’s driving at on a deeper level, i.e., the need to notice, to observe image carefully—and yet more carefully still.  But that core may also reside in the form of revelatory emotion, or as Billy Collins said in 2001, “Poetry is the history of the human heart, and it continues to record the history of human emotion, whether it’s celebration or grief or whatever it may be.”

Perhaps last of all, poetry for me has become a way to celebrate my faith.  In some way, it should make me sit up and pay attention to life and its sacred dance.  So many people around us go through life on auto pilot, and for me and for many others, poetry is a way to re-awaken us to the holiness that resides within us and all around us.  Whether it’s through picking up the thread of a Biblical narrative, observing life around us, delving into the natural world, or just contemplating Christ’s work in our own lives, a poem should gather the kindling and the wood to reignite that sacred connection that our culture so casually dampens through its superficial, banal concerns.  And when one finds a poem that sets that blaze alight, that poem becomes a treasure not easily set aside.

David Holper has worked as a taxi driver, fisherman, dishwasher, bus driver, soldier, house painter, bike mechanic, bike courier, and teacher. His poems appear in various literary journals and his book of poems, 64 Questions, is available from March Street Press. He teaches at College of the Redwoods and lives in Eureka, CA, far enough from the madness of civilization to get some writing done. He is Relief‘s guest poetry editor for Issue 5.2.

The New Bible-for Secular Humanist

Bonnie Ponce

The Secular Bible – Click here to read the whole story.

This makes me sad that someone has written a “bible” for all the non-religious people, though A. C. Grayling claims that there is something there for everyone.

“The question arose early in British academic A.C. Grayling’s career: What if those ancient compilers who’d made Bibles, the collected religious texts that were translated, edited, arranged and published en masse, had focused instead on assembling the non-religious teachings of civilization’s greatest thinkers?

What if the book that billions have turned to for ethical guidance wasn’t tied to commandments from God or any one particular tradition but instead included the writings of Aristotle, the reflections of Confucius, the poetry of Baudelaire? What would that book look like, and what would it mean?

Decades after he started asking such questions, what Grayling calls “a lifetime’s work” has hit bookshelves. “The Good Book: A Humanist Bible,” subtitled “A Secular Bible” in the United Kingdom, was published this month. Grayling crafted it by using more than a thousand texts representing several hundred authors, collections and traditions.”

This bible is a collection of the greatest human philosophies from the east and west and there are probably some interesting or even inspiring ideas but the problem is that they are from men. I believe that the Holy Bible is completely inspired by God that his ideas were put onto parchments and scrolls by men but they were God’s words. I feel that this bible written by Grayling will lead people that have never read the Holy Bible into thinking they are of equal importance.

What do you think?  What impact will it have on our culture?

Bonnie Ponce is the Director of Support Raising for Relief and lives in Huntsville, Texas with her husband and betta fish.  She has a BA in English from Sam Houston State University.  After work she enjoys relaxing with a good book or working on her novel.

CA Redemption Value

Michael Dean Clark

Some thoughts on trash:

A homeless man in his fifties pulls aluminum cans from the trash barrel in front of the Ralphs Supermarket where I shop. He’s clearly no amateur. What catches my attention this morning is not the act itself. He’s not the only person I’ve seen scavenging to get by today. This is Ocean Beach after all.

What arrests my general distraction is the way he cleans as he pulls the cans out of the refuse, taking time to pick the cigarette butts out of the ash tray on the top of the stone-speckled trash barrel, dropping them one by one into the bag as if to earn the recycling fees others didn’t bother taking the time to redeem.

-#-

When I was a reporter in Los Angeles, I worked for a newspaper that covered the Puente Hills Landfill in a strip of unincorporated county land that was once most likely a dairy farm. Now, it’s America’s largest trash heap at 150 meters tall and covering more than 700 acres. I once covered a meeting where officials discussed the rate at which the massive trash mountain was summiting the space allotted to it. At one point in the meeting, a plan to ship the region’s trash by rail into the Nevada desert was discussed, though not seriously. Apparently, the same objection came up every time the concept was mentioned. It’s less expensive (and thus, more profitable) to continue with the current business model until it is no longer viable.

No word on how viable the people of Nevada find the alternative.

-#-

I love family stories, especially the ones from before I was born. Apparently, there was a DIY trend in the early 70s where particularly resourceful interior design types would piece together area rugs from a number of smaller pieces of (hopefully) corresponding color, though I did mention this was the 70s, right? In my mind’s eye, it’s like a shag quilt. All one needed were the remainders of other pieces of plush pile or low nap and the desire to turn said scraps into one Franken-rug.

My parents apparently harbored said desire, which is why, on more than one occasion, you could find my older brother in the dumpster behind a carpet store. I’m told the results were lovely, though no pictures exist as confirmation.

-#-

I may be over-simplifying, but as I relive these scenes I can’t help but see the writing in them all.

Michael Dean Clark is the fiction editor at Relief, as well as an author of fiction and nonfiction and an Assistant Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University. He lives in San Diego with his wife and three children.